Lecture: Father of American Anthropology (Listen and Read)

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Lecture: Father of American Anthropology
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In this lecture series, we're going to look at the most prominent anthropologist - Franz Uri Boas,
a German Anthropologist born in 1858,
who later came to live in America and is generally known as the "Father of American Anthropology".
Before we can consider Boas's contribution,
we need to look at the state anthropology was in before he came onto the scene.
Although there was some serious work being done in anthropology at the time,
the field was heavily peopled with untrained adventurers and armchair philosophers.
They used small scraps of information,
haphazardly gathered and riddled with bias,
to back up the point they wanted to make.
Boas's background countered this.
His parents held a disdain for dogma,
which meant that Boas was free to question different beliefs unhindered.
He was attracted to the natural sciences.
As he grew older, he did more rigorous studies and experiments,
and studied mathematics, physics and geography.
What put him on the anthropological track was a geographic expedition to the arctic
that he took in 1883.
This background was, I think it's fair to say,
fundamental with regards to what Boas brought to the field,
because he introduced methodology and scientific method to the field.
He believed that you could only formulate theories and conclusions
after thorough and rigorous collection of data,
and the examination of hard evidence.
One of Boas's main contributions to anthropological thought
was his rejection of the evolutionary approach to culture.
This approach assumed that all societies progressed through certain technological and cultural stages,
in hierarchical form, until they reached the peak - the zenith -
which of course was the Western-European culture.
According to Boas, this was all bunkum.
There was no process towards a so-called higher form of culture.
Each society, he said, was uniquely adapted to the set of circumstances in which it had arisen.
Each was the product of a unique history.
His ideas paralleled those of Charles Darwin,
whose own conception of evolution was that change occurred in response to pressures and opportunities.
This idea was what shaped Boas's work in museums,
for which he was, at first heavily criticised.
At the time, museums were laid out in this way -
cultures considered primitive were set out first,
and then gradually more so-called advanced or higher cultures were set out in progression.
But Boas rejected that.
He insisted that museums focus on the cultural proximity of the groups in question.
Boas also did a lot of work to destroy preconceived ideas of racism.
Racial anthropologists of the day were under the impression that human behaviour was determined by an innate disposition.
Boas worked to disprove this,
asserting that behaviour was the result of social learning.
He also worked on physiological preconceptions.
At the time, it was believed that head shape was a racial trait.
Presumably they were under the impression that Western Europeans naturally had larger brains
and so were more intelligent,
but Boas conducted a series of groundbreaking studies of skeletal anatomy
to prove that head shape and size was highly malleable,
and depended on environmental factors such as health and nutrition.
For Boas, the object of anthropology was to understand how their experiences,
their environment, and their social leaning led people to understand and interact with the world in different ways.
And to do this, you couldn't just observe them from a distance through the eyes of your own culture.
You needed to look at a whole range of things such as mythology, religion,
physical appearance, and so on.
To do this, anthropologists needed to go on location,
and undertake an intense survey that cataloged all these different elements.
As the burden of the task of studying culture grew,
anthropology became divided into four distinct parts:
human evolution, archaeology, language, and culture.
In short, Boas left behind a considerable legacy to the field of anthropology,
in terms of his scientific methodology, his cultural relativism
and his tireless efforts to end racial bigotry and oppression.
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