This extended review is a collaboration between the Reviews and Field Notes sections of HAR.
Regna Darnell, Michelle Hamilton, Robert L. A. Hancock, and Joshua Smith (editors). The Franz Boas Papers, Volume 1: Franz Boas as Public Intellectual—Theory, Ethnography, Activism. 408 pp., 18 illus., index. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2015.
William Y. Adams. The Boasians: Founding Fathers and Mothers of American Anthropology. 356 pp., 10 illus., bibl. Lanham, MD: Hamilton, 2016.
Ned Blackhawk and Isaiah Lorado Wilner (editors). Indigenous Visions: Rediscovering the World of Franz Boas. 416 pp., 28 illus., index. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2018.
Anthropologists and historians of anthropology readily acknowledge the role played by European empires in the making of the discipline. Although practitioners occasionally challenged existing power structures, they more frequently worked to inform and justify the dispossession, marginalization, murder, and enslavement of Indigenous and colonized peoples. These processes culminated in the Social Darwinist evolutionism of the Victorian period, which lent prevailing racial hierarchies a patina of scientific authority. This began to shift in the early twentieth century, when, amid a welter of social and cultural upheavals in Western society, anthropology’s imperial foundations appeared ripe for reconsideration. In America, the foremost proponent of these changes was the Jewish German-American anthropologist Franz Boas (1858-1942). Traditional disciplinary histories point especially to Boas’s pivotal rejection of evolutionary anthropological approaches in favor of viewing cultures as integrated wholes, apprehensible solely within the contexts in which they are produced and maintained. These protocols were disseminated broadly, with Boas’s students founding university anthropology departments throughout the United States. On these grounds, Boas is frequently celebrated as “a major turning point from the evolution and racism of the nineteenth century to the historical particularism and cultural relativism of the twentieth century.”Continue reading