Boas, Franz

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Franz Boas (1858–1942) – German anthropologist who spent most of his life in the United States and is known as a “founding father” of American (i.e., cultural) anthropology, at Columbia University heading the first Department of Anthropology in the country. Boas advocated an empirical approach to anthropological “science,” arguing that a culture must be studied dispassionately in context (an early form of empiricism and participant-observation) not according to the vagaries of ideology (making Boas a founder of cultural relativism). Boas’s year with the Inuit of Baffin Island in 1883 and his experiences of this culturally sophisticated though apparently technologically primitive society led him to reject the notion of technological evolution—and cultural evolution more generally, as conceived by Edward Tylor, Lewis Henry Morgan, and Herbert Spencer—as indicative of cultural dynamics and success (cultural evolution had been in vogue since the publication of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, though it differs from Darwin in numerous respects). Instead, Boas advocated local context and history. Among the Inuit, Boas recorded the practices of the angakkoq. Boas also made research trips to the Pacific Northwest in the late 1880s, where he studied the diversity of genealogy as well as art and shamanism.


Historical Dictionary of Shamanism by Graham Harvey and Robert J. Wallis 2007


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