The Royal Geographical Society (with the Institute of British Geographers) History and Philosophy of Geography Research Group presents an online conference, “Geographical Relativities,” on April 14, 2023.

This conference marks the publication of Rosemary Lévy Zumwalt’s recent work, Franz Boas: Shaping Anthropology and Fostering Social Justice (2022), the follow up installment to Franz Boas, The Emergence of the Anthropologist (2019).

Franz Boas (1858 – 1942) has been memorialized for his important role in fostering of cultural relativity, a key research methodology in social anthropology. Yet, as a boy, Boas was interested in geography. Later, at the time of his doctoral studies his interests swung from physics to anthropology, a move that was sealed during his 1883-84 fieldwork on Baffin Island. Boas also authored an early paper about geography (1887). However, with a few exceptions (Bravo 2009; Powell 2015) Boas has received less attention from geographers and historians of geography, and his fashioning of the geographies of geography has been little explored. Why was this so? In what ways does Boas’s own disciplinary shift inform the epistemological, disciplinary and institutional flux of the twin disciplines of fin-de-siècle anthropology and geography? With him we can examine the tensions between anthropogeography, geography and anthropology (and ethnology) in universities and other institutions such as savant societies and museums. We can also locate where he fits into the longer running entanglement of anthropogeography, cultural ecology in anthropology, and political ecology. 

This conference affords the chance to share reflections on the place or absence of Boas in late nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century geographical and historical geographical research. The evolutionism, historicism, cosmography and the productive dynamism of attempts to reconcile understandings of local conditions and universality seen in Boas’s works are similarly features in late nineteenth-century geographers, including anarchist geographers. It explores wider concepts, and practices, of relativity in geography and historical geography. In addition, it asks what the shift in Boas’s interests tells us about broader disciplinary and institutional transformations, and how these might inform the relationships between emergent geographical practices and practitioners and those in cultural ecology, and cultural, social and physical anthropology. It seeks to reflect upon the spatial aspects of his thought and his spatializing practices. The papers in this conference address Boas’s work on race and anthropometric measurements, his subsequent resonance across the transnational histories of geographical theory, as well as methods and practice around the turn of the 19th and 20th century in British and European thought and practice. They attend to the places and subsequent resonance of his ideas across the interdisciplinary fields of geography, anthropology and their shifting places within wider epistemic maps. Other papers bring to light broader historical geographies of relativist geographical, ‘cultural’ or other, frames of understanding. 

The conference is open to both faculty and postgraduate students and will take place online on Friday, April 14th, from 15h00 – 18h00 (GMT)

To attend, please email: Dr. Emily Hayes (Oxford Brookes University) or visit the conference Eventbrite page. More information can also be found on the RGS website or on the homepage for the RGS-IBG History and Philosophy of Geography Research Group (HPGRG).


15h00 –15h15: Emily Hayes – Welcome and Introduction

15h15-16h00 (GMT): Rosemary Zumwalt, Keynote: Franz Boas’s Cartographic and Ethnographic work on Baffin Island (1883 – 1884)

16h00-16h20 (GMT): Federico Ferretti, The relativity of cultures between geography and anthropology: Early anarchist geographers in humane and empathetic sciences, and Franz Boas 

16h20-16h40 (GMT): Peter R. Martin, Franz Boas and the Search for the ‘Origins of the Inuit’

16h40-17h00 (GMT): Emily Hayes, ‘[T]he relativity of all cultivation’ (Boas, December 23, 1883 in Cole, 1983, 33): a short comparative study of Boas and Mackinder

Sarah Pickman: contributions /