German-born US anthropologist, who was the principal founder of the culture-history school of cultural anthropology that arose in the USA in the early twentieth century.
Boas attended the universities of Heidelberg, Bonn, and Kiel; after receiving a doctorate in physics from Kiel in 1881 he switched to geography. He met leading German anthropologists, including Rudolf Virchow, and in 1886 went to British Columbia to study the native Indian tribes of the region, studies he continued throughout his life. After this he decided to stay in New York and became an assistant editor of Science. He taught at Clarke University (1888–92) and then acted as chief anthropology assistant to the World's Columbian Exposition held in Chicago (1892–93). In 1895 he joined the American Museum of Natural History, New York, where he became assistant curator (1896) and curator (1901–05). Meanwhile he joined Columbia University in 1896 as a lecturer in physical anthropology and was subsequently made professor (1899–1936).
Boas was among the first to distinguish the basic elements of modern anthropology, particularly the linguistic and cultural components of ethnology. He held that many previous studies of societies had been based on the criteria of western observers and were therefore largely subjective and invalid. Boas viewed each society and culture as the result of a unique historical development and saw his task as primarily one of description and recording rather than constructing generalizations applicable to all. His studies of Indians in northwestern America concentrated especially on their folklore and art and pioneered the use of trained native speakers to record the largely nonwritten languages. His work in physical anthropology included a study of growth in US citizens that was the first to separate the effects of heredity and physiology. His books include The Mind of Primitive Man (1911), Primitive Art (1927), and Race, Language and Culture (1940). Boas helped found the American Anthropological Association in 1902 and served as its president (1907–09). He was also president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 1931. But above all, he was the inspiration for an entire generation of US anthropologists.
Subjects: Social Sciences — History.