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Franz Boas and the culture concept

Franz Boas and the culture concept

Ryan Schram

ANTH 1001: Introduction to anthropology

Wednesday, March 4, 2020 (Week 2)

Available at http://anthro.rschram.org/1001/2020/1.2.2

Required readings

Claudia Roth Pierpont “The Measure of America,” The New Yorker (March 8, 2004): 48–63.

The psychic unity of humankind

On Monday we discussed the two anthropologies:

  • Humanity is a ladder, and some people are less human
  • Humanity is one, and all people have the same brains

Tylor is caught between the two anthropologies. He gives us a contemporary sense of culture as acquired. But he never talks about plural culture-s. 🤔

Rather, each society occupied a different stage of culture, somewhere between primitive and civilized. 🧐

Culture in the plural

Franz Boas is responsible for creating a properly cultural anthropology in which difference can be explained with a new concept of culture.

Boas saw a bias in the evolutionary approach to culture that prevented it from really understanding why people are different. What is it?

“Each cultural group has its own unique history” (Boas [1920] 2006, 102). Boas advocates for historical particularism against Tylor's belief that all societies move the same linear path.

Cultures are like different languages

Boas stood against ethnocentrism. See for instance his argument against “alternating sounds” (Boas 1889).

  • Linguists of this time claimed that some languages were less logical and orderly because observers found that two speakers of the same language would not use the same sounds to say the same things.
  • Boas showed that it was the observers who could not hear properly the sounds that these two speakers were using. The observers’ own languages led them to hear the wrong things.

People acquire culture as a whole system of thought, not bits and pieces

The patterns of behavior people acquire from their social environment are connected to other patterns in the same environment.

  • The patterns of action that a “teacher” performs anticipate that there are other people fulfilling the role of “student”
  • People acquire an understanding of what is normal which they share with others. They adopt particular patterns of behavior because the patterns maintain normal life.
  • Culture is more than rules; the rules are part of a worldview that you share with others in your community.

Cultural relativism is a methodological principle

People’s behaviors must be understood as being relative to the context in which they occur, because in that context they are part of a system of thought that people in one culture share.

There are other kinds of relativism, and cultural relativism needs to be distinguished from them

  • Epistemological relativism
  • Moral relativism

Anthropologists need not adopt these kinds of relativism to understand cultural differences

  • Adopting a position of cultural relativism applies only to patterns of normal behavior. Abnormal behavior does not make sense in the context of a cultural worldview by definition.

Is cultural anthropology a science?

Does the principle of cultural relativism mean that we can’t make claims about human beings as a species? I say no.

Boas makes a unique contribution to the psychic unity thesis: It is not only that

  • Any person can acquire any culture

But also that

  • Every person needs to acquire a particular culture.

There is a connection between the innate and the universal on the one hand and the acquired and the particular on the other.

Survey: Should anthropology embrace other kinds of relativism?

Is a position of cultural relativism sufficient for understanding other people's ways of life?

Go to Canvas and answer the survey question for today. Scroll down if needed. Either answer is acceptable. Choose the one with which you agree the most, and think about why you agree with it.

The password will be announced in class.

Taking back the culture concept

Culture is often an overused word. For anthropologists who are interested in the acquired and the particular, it is often a misused word. This class is about taking back the word culture.

  • Culture is not just people’s identity
  • Culture is usually implicit and invisible, like a habit, not an obvious or deliberate expression
  • One’s culture is not just what makes people different from each other. Everyone needs to acquire patterns from a shared culture to be complete.


Boas, Franz. 1889. “On Alternating Sounds.” American Anthropologist 2 (1):47–54.

Boas, Franz. (1920) 2006. “The Methods of Ethnology.” In Readings for a History of Anthropological Theory, edited by Liam Donat Murphy and Paul A. Erickson, 2nd ed., 99–105. Peterborough, Ont.: Broadview Press.

Pierpont, Claudia Roth. 2004. “The Measure of America.” The New Yorker, March, 48–63.

A guide to the unit

1001/2020/1.2.2.txt · Last modified: 2020/03/03 17:49 by Ryan Schram (admin)