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3.4: Anthropology in the United States

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    During the development of anthropology in North America (Canada, United States, and Mexico), the significant contribution made by the American School of Anthropology in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries was the concept of cultural relativism (discussed in Chapter 2). Cultural relativism is different than ethnocentrism because it emphasizes understanding culture from an insider’s view. The focus on culture, along with the idea of cultural relativism, distinguished cultural anthropology in the United States from social anthropology in Europe. The participant-observation method of fieldwork was a revolutionary change to the practice of anthropology, but at the same time, it presented problems that needed to be overcome. The challenge was to move away from ethnocentrism, race stereotypes, and colonial attitudes, and to move forward by encouraging anthropologists to maintain high ethical standards and open minds.

    Franz Boas, an American anthropologist, is acknowledged for redirecting American anthropologists away from cultural evolutionism and toward cultural relativism. Boas first studied physical science at the University of Kiel in Germany. Because he was a trained scientist, he was familiar with using empirical methods as a way to study a subject. Empirical methods are based on evidence that can be tested using observation and experiment.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\) Franz Boas posing for figure titled Hamats'a Coming Out of Secret Room, 1895.

    In 1883, Franz Boas went on a geographical expedition to Baffin Island in the Canadian Arctic. The Central Eskimo (1888) details his time spent on Baffin Island studying the culture and language of the central Eskimo (Inuit) people. He studied every aspect of their culture such as tools, clothing, and shelters. This study was Boas’ first major contribution to the American school of anthropology and convinced him that cultures could only be understood through extensive field research. As he observed on Baffin Island, cultural ideas and practices are shaped through interactions with the natural environment. The cultural traditions of the Inuit were suited for the environment in which they lived. This work led him to promote cultural relativism: the principle that a culture must be understood on its own terms rather than compared to an outsider’s standard. This was an important turning point in correcting the challenge of ethnocentrism in ethnographic fieldwork.[1]

    Boas is often considered the Father of American Anthropology because he trained the first generation of American anthropologists including Ruth Benedict, Margaret Mead, and Alfred Kroeber. Using a commitment to cultural relativism as a starting point, these students continued to refine the concept of culture as well as contributing to the theoretical perspectives in anthropology.


    Boas, Franz. The Central Eskimo. Washington: Smithsonian Institution, Bureau of Ethnology, 1888.


    Figure 3.4.1. Franz Boas posing for figure titled Hamats'a Coming Out of Secret Room, 1895, from Wikimedia Commons under Public Domain.


    1. Boas’ attitudes about cultural relativism were influenced by his experiences in the Canadian Arctic as he struggled to survive in a natural environment foreign to his own prior experience. His private diary and letters record the evolution of his thinking about what it means to be “civilized.” In a letter to his fiancé, he wrote: “I often ask myself what advantages our 'good society' possesses over that of the 'savages' and find, the more I see of their customs, that we have no right to look down upon them ... We have no right to blame them for their forms and superstitions which may seem ridiculous to us. We ‘highly educated people’ are much worse, relatively speaking.” The entire letter can be read in George Stocking, ed. Observers Observed: Essays on Ethnographic Fieldwork (Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1983), 33.

    Adapted From

    "The Concept of Culture" by Priscilla Medeiros, Women’s College Hospital and Emily Cowall, McMaster University. In Perspectives: An Open Invitation to Cultural Anthropology, 2nd Edition, Society for Anthropology in Community Colleges, 2020, under CC BY-NC 4.0.

    3.4: Anthropology in the United States is shared under a CC BY-NC license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by LibreTexts.

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