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Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Franz Boas: Rejecting Change But Accepting Static Cling

The first thing I look for when reading articles by past anthropologists is an agenda. While it did take me several pages to figure out Franz Boas’ agenda, it pained me to disagree with some of his assertions as I respect Franz Boas and his research. “My parents had broken through the shackles of dogma”. It was this line that led to my argument. I knew his religious upbringing, coming from a wealthy Jewish family, would force him to strike down all ideas of evolutionary processes. Yet, his concentration on the science of anthropology made me realize he was a positivist. Not completely, but partially.

In “Methods of Ethnology”, Boas attacks evolutionary theorists because in reality he supports method without theory, and to my understanding, one cannot exist without the other. Boas supported the Darwinian model of biological evolution but was hostile to its application to social evolution. The term “social organism” comes to mind once again, which combines both evolution and societal issues in one. Why such a favoritism towards the scientific? Can’t anthropology be scientific and unscientific?

Boas believes in “human equality” which essentially explains his attacks on evolutionists. In theory, however, all things are subject to change. Boas’ methods of characterizing anthropology as static undermines what cultural evolution stands for and represents. Furthermore, attacking American anthropological students interested in the “dynamic phenomena of cultural change” is like saying the earth is flat and stays still. Contradicting this statement, Boas believed “the whole problem of cultural history appears to us as an historical problem. In order to understand history, it is necessary to know not only how things are, but how they have come to be”.

In order to study how things have changed, would it not be necessary to study evolution in some aspects? Biological and cultural? If Boas truly believes that society is in flux and is subject to “fundamental modifications”, why does he confuse dynamics in society, rejecting the fact that society changes, instead of attempting to solve fundamental problems in developing civilizations?

While I see there is a method to Boas’ understanding of society as a whole, I don’t see how he could reject the use of theory, which is based on the collection of data. Yes, theory depends on data and analysis, yet Boas implies that theorists are not using it.

Boas seems to be the victim of static cling. Although he’s aware that there are other methods at correcting an assumption, he seems to cling too tightly to his own ideas, which he believes cannot be changed.


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