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3.5: Franz Boas and His Students

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    When Boas began his career in anthropology, Unilineal Evolution and Social Darwinism were the predominant theories in the anthropological world. However, coming from a background in physics, mathematics, and geography (Sidky 2004), Boas rejected the evolutionist theories of culture. He claimed that the laws of cultural evolution and the fixed stages of progress were based on insufficient evidence (Harris & Johnson 2007). He stressed that anthropologists should do first-hand ethnographic fieldwork and systematically collect data rather than relying on third-hand accounts of other cultures as "armchair anthropologists" (Harris & Johnson 2007, Sidky 2004). He also believed that the terms such as "savagery", "barbarism", and "civilization" expressed an ethnocentric view of one culture being better than another. He objected to evaluating other cultures using Western concepts such as "progress" and advocated for adopting a relativistic perspective (Sidky 2004). One of Boas's many contributions to anthropology, cultural relativism, and firsthand observation became central to the Boasian paradigm and anthropological thought for his students.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Franz Boas, c1915.


    Similar to cultural relativism, the primary assumption of Historical Particularism is that each society has its own unique historical development and must be understood based on its own specific cultural and environmental context, especially its historical process. Boas approached each culture as unique and distinctive and asserted that the culture of a society was shaped by its own particular historical, psychological, and social forces (Sidky 2004). While Boas did believe that there were universal laws that could be derived from the comparative study of cultures, he thought that the ethnographic database was not yet robust enough for us to identify those laws (Sidky 2004). To that end, he and his students collected a vast amount of first-hand cultural data by conducting ethnographic fieldwork. Based on these raw data, they described particular cultures instead of trying to establish general theories that apply to all societies. At the same time, the evidence collected by historical particularists revealed the ethnocentrism and racist views of the cultural evolutionists (Sidky 2004).

    Definition: Historical Particularism

    The anthropological perspective, associated with Franz Boas, that stressed the uniqueness of each culture thought to be the outcome of chance historical developments (Sidky 2004).

    Historical particularism was a dominant trend in anthropology during the first half of the twentieth century. One of the achievements of the historical particularists was that they succeeded in excluding racism from anthropology. The nineteenth-century evolutionists explained cultural similarities and differences by classifying societies into superior and inferior categories. Historical particularists showed that this labeling is based on insufficient evidence and claimed that societies cannot be ranked by the value judgment of researchers. Historical particularists were also responsible for showing the need for long-term, intensive fieldwork in order to produce accurate descriptions of cultures.


    Ruth Benedict, one of Boas’ first female students and known for her best-selling book Patterns of Culture (1934), proposed that “culture is the primary determinant of the personality of all its members” (Sidky 2004, p. 154). She argued that it was the psychological effects of culture, or the patterns of ideas and emotions, that resulted in the members of the culture exhibiting common traits.

    Portrait of Ruth Benedict, 1936
    Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\): Ruth Benedict, American Anthropologist, 1937.
    Figure \(\PageIndex{3}\): Margaret Mead, 1948.

    One of the most well-known anthropologists in American anthropology, Margaret Mead, was a student of Ruth Benedict. Like Benedict, she was also influenced by Franz Boas and the concept of cultural relativism. Her famous book, Coming of Age in Samoa (1928), was the result of her research in Samoa and a significant contribution to the field of cultural anthropology and the nature versus nurture debate (Sidky 2004).


    Attributed to anthropologists Benedict and Mead, the theoretical perspective of Culture and Personality was based on the "idea that culture is the primary determinant of the personality of its members" (Sidky 2004). Drawing on the work of Edward Sapir as well as Sigmund Freud, the theory culture and personality stressed the importance of the relationship between childrearing customs and human behaviors in different societies (Harris & Johnson 2007, Sidky 2004). They suggested anthropologists could gain an understanding of a national culture through the examination of individual personalities. The basic ideas of the theory are that (Levine 2001):

    • adult behavior is "culturally patterned",
    • childhood experiences influence the individual's personality and,
    • personality traits are reflected in the cultural beliefs and social institutions.

    Definition: Culture and Personality

    The idea that culture is the primary determinant of the personality of its members.

    The Culture and Personality proponents were on the cutting edge when it emerged in the early 20th century. Using clinical interviews, dream analysis, life histories, participant observation, and projective tests (e.g., Rorschach), the culture and personality analysis of the correlation between childrearing customs and human behaviors was, at that time, a practical alternative to using racism explanations for analyzing different human behaviors. In fact, the culture and personality school was responsible for greatly limiting the number of racist, hierarchical descriptions of culture types common during the early to mid-20th century. This approach to understanding culture was instrumental in moving the focus to the individual in order to understand behaviors within a culture instead of looking for universal laws of human behavior. Although the theory of Culture and Personality reached its peak in the 1930s and 1940s, it led to the development of what is called psychological anthropology today (Levine 2001; Lindholm 2001).


    Benedict, Ruth. Patterns of Culture. Boston: Houghton and Mifflin Company, 1934.

    Harris, Marvin K, and Orna Johnson. Cultural Anthropology. Boston: Pearson A and B, 2007.

    LeVine, R.A. Culture and Personality Studies 1918-1960. Journal of Personality. 69:6, 803-818, 2001.

    Lindholm, Charles. Culture and Identity: The History, Theory, and Practice of Psychological Anthropology. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2001.

    Mead, Margaret. Coming of Age in Samoa: A Psychological Study of Primitive Youth for Western Civilization. New York: William Morrow and Company, 1928.

    Sidky, H. Perspectives on Culture: A Critical Introduction to Theory in Cultural Anthropology. Upper Saddle River, N.J: Prentice Hall, 2004


    Figure 3.5.1. Franz Boas, c1915, from Wikimedia Commons under Public Domain.

    Figure 3.5.2. Ruth Benedict, American Anthropologist, 1937, from The Library of Congress under Public Domain.

    Figure 3.5.3. Margaret Mead, 1948, from Smithsonian Institution under Public Domain.

    3.5: Franz Boas and His Students is shared under a CC BY-SA license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by LibreTexts.