Rediscovering Papa Franz

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons | © Holly Swyers. ISSN 2049-1115 (Online). DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.14318/hau6.2.015


Rediscovering Papa Franz

Teaching Anthropology and modern life

Holly SWYERS, Lake Forest College

When confronted with the task of choosing texts for an undergraduate four-field course in a joint sociology/anthropology department, I elected to teach with Franz Boas’ 1928 text, Anthropology and modern life. Six years in, I have become enamored of the text for teaching undergraduates. This essay examines the question of how an early twentieth-century textbook applies to the questions of the twenty-first century and how Boas continues to play an active role in how anthropological work is presented to the public in sites like the Field Museum of Chicago. Considering Boas’ work on race, nationalism, eugenics, and education enables students and others to see themselves in dialogue with a long four-field tradition in anthropology, and revisiting his legacy as professional anthropologists offers us space to be joyful in our own often-troubled history.

Keywords: History of anthropology, Franz Boas, classroom ethnography, museums, scientific racism, four-field anthropology, pedagogy

In the spring of 2014, at the urging of a colleague, I went to the Chicago Field Museum’s exhibit on the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition. “It’s strange,” she told me. “I expected it to be recapturing the wonder and excitement of the fair, but it does something completely different.” She pitched a collaborative project on the exhibit to me, describing how she felt it worked rhetorically. Then she told me that a lot of the exhibit is about how the Field Museum learned how to do better anthropology because of Franz Boas. At that moment, I knew I had to check it out.

I started using Boas’ 1928 volume, Anthropology and modern life, as a primary text in my four-field course in 2009. I had stumbled across that text and the later Race and democratic society (1945) years earlier while writing my dissertation on US education and nation building, and I had long entertained the idea of teaching a course on race that used Boas’ work. This desire grew when Corey Sparks and Richard Jantz (2002) published their reevaluation of Boas’ work on cranial capacity, [214]challenging Boas’ claims.1 The subsequent flurry of articles (e.g., Gravlee, Bernard, and Leonard 2003; Relethford 2004; Baker 2004) brought Boas at least temporarily back into the public eye, including an article in the New York Times suggesting Boas fudged his data to support the fight against racism (Wade 2002). While Boas was eventually vindicated, I found myself wanting to teach his work to challenge what I perceived as slander. Alas, I was not at a point in my career where I had so much control over what I could teach, so 2009 was the first time I had a chance to bring Boas off the shelf and into the classroom.

Teaching a four-field course anchored by Boas was a revelation. Class conversation started lively and stayed lively, and even after we had moved on to other texts, students would bring us back to Boas, finding hints of him in unexpected places. The pattern continued each time I taught the course. In 2011, after the third iteration of the course, in preparation for potential changes to the curriculum, I surveyed my students about the texts we were using. Of the texts we had read, ranging from classics like James Deetz’s Of small things forgotten ([1977] 1996) to more contemporary books like David Harrison’s When languages die (2008), only one received the endorsement of 75 percent of the class as a “must keep.” The winning text? Franz Boas’ 1928 Anthropology and modern life.

It seems counterintuitive that a nearly ninety-year-old text would resonate so strongly with twenty-first-century 19–20 year olds in the United States, my primary audience. Certainly the textbooks that regularly appear in the mail for me suggest that what I should be using would have lots of pictures and call out boxes and real world examples from the twenty-first century, plus an online supplement and premade PowerPoint slides. I know that many anthropologists would argue for any one of several excellent ethnographies of recent years as a better way to engage undergraduates in our discipline. I disagree. I have found in Boas a coteacher, and in keeping with the theme of this issue, I contend that introducing undergraduates to anthropology via our history is a joyful undertaking. It rescues us from potential marginalization as purveyors of the exotic or detached ivory tower theorists while also disrupting a pattern of blanket condemnation of our own past that inspires students to question whether a discipline so flawed is worth their time. A joyful history, I submit, is not free from critique. Instead it partakes of a kind of happiness, aptly analyzed by Joel Robbins, that derives from the realization of values, and “presents challenges to people seeking to integrate the various temporalities through which their lives unfold” (2015: 230). Such an engagement with our forefathers invites students into active, conscious participation in a long-term project that directly affects their day-to-day reality and to [215]which they can contribute, thus enabling them to engage the challenge of realizing values.

In sharing my rediscovery of Papa Franz, I hope to persuade other anthropologists of the value of embracing our past rather than discarding it when we feel it has gone out of fashion. I acknowledge that my example is context specific, and invite others to imagine Boas’ place (or that of other ancestor-anthropologists) in their own national and professional histories. To this end, I offer three distinct reflections on Boas as I have experienced him a US context. The first takes us back to the aforementioned Chicago Field Museum exhibit, in which Boas emerges as a hero against the forces of the “bad old days” of racism and colonialism. The second narrates a week of teaching with Boas, imagining him literally as my coteacher as we work through chapters of his text. The third is a comment on my historic moment, in which racism turns out to be far less over than pundits would have had us believe, and in which the relevance of anthropology could not be more starkly on display and yet so sadly neglected. Papa Franz set us a task, and, at least in the United States, we seem to have muffed it.

“Opening the Vaults”: Finding Boas at the Field Museum

For a variety of reasons, it was highly likely that I would have gone to the Field Museum exhibit on the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, even without the urging of my colleague, Linda Horwitz. I, like many Chicagoans, have a fondness for the fair as a part of our city’s locally invoked history. The title of the museum’s exhibit, “Opening the Vaults,” as well as the way it was advertised, implied that the fair would be brought back to life with materials that had been hidden from public view for as long as a century. I was surprised to hear Horwitz’s assessment that it was instead a story of what could be saved from the “bad old days” of racism, rampant commercialism, and medical quackery.2 I was even more surprised to hear the prominent place that Boas was given in that history.

On my first visit, I walked impatiently through the exhibit until I came face-to-face with an oft-used profile photo of Boas, just above eye level on the end of a display case that held a model of a Haida village. The photo was accompanied by this text: “In 1893, a leading theory classified cultures as ‘savage,’ ‘barbarian,’ or ‘civilized,’ according to the tools those cultures used. However, Franz Boas, a pioneer of the field, helped shift the approach. After the Fair, he advocated data-driven studies rather than ranking cultures from least to most civilized.” So far so good, I thought, but did the Field Museum really share my Papa Franz? I backtracked to the start of the anthropology section of the exhibit, fully three times as long as the other segments.3 Cobbling together the signage through the exhibit produced this story:

The Fair brought the world to Chicago. Unfortunately, people from around the world were also brought to the Fair to be put on exhibit. . . . [216]Native people were brought to live in reconstructed villages throughout the Fair to demonstrate “traditional” life for fairgoers. Reconstructed villages often made native people seem “less-advanced” to reinforce a central message of the Fair: the Western world was the most advanced civilization. . . . Offensive by today’s standards, the Fair’s approach reflected late 19th century theories of anthropology. . . . However, Franz Boas . . . helped shift the approach. . . . Boas was assistant chief of the Fair’s anthropology department and later became the new Museum’s first anthropology curator. For his early contributions, he’s remembered as the father of American anthropology.4

In short, the Field Museum was using the exhibit to critique Victorian ideas (ignoring for a moment the irony that they were putting the Victorians on display to argue they were “less advanced”) and hailing Boas as the hero that had enabled them to save the good science from the bad past.

While my own fondness and respect for Boas prevent me from objecting to him becoming the hero of this story, this was not really why I remembered Boas as the father of American anthropology. I had a vague recollection that he had been briefly connected to the Field Museum, but my Papa Franz was a physicist-turned-geographer-turned-ethnologist who finally settled at Columbia University. He professionalized anthropology in the United States and trained an entire generation of anthropologists, many of whom were Jewish, or female, or racial minorities in the United States, and who might otherwise have been barred from the academy. He was in dialogue and collaboration with many intellectual leaders of the early twentieth century, including W. E. B. Du Bois and John Dewey, and he died in the arms of Claude Lévi-Strauss. Because of my training, my gender identity, and my research work on the enculturation of Americans over time, Boas looms large in my intellectual genealogy, but his stint as interim director at the Field Museum for less than a year in 1893–94 (Stocking 1968: 280–81) was something I had completely forgotten.

After my first foray into the Field Museum’s exhibit, I agreed that Horwitz and I should work together. We spent many more hours together at the Field Museum, not only at the special exhibit but also looking at the permanent exhibits on anthropology and the history of anthropology in the United States.5 We presented our conclusions at the Annual Meeting of the National Communication Association, arguing that the “Opening the Vaults” exhibit was “designed to disrupt nostalgia and challenge the viewers’ orientation toward the Fair, raising the question of how one celebrates a past that may be ‘on the wrong side of history’” (Horwitz and Swyers 2014). We critiqued the exhibit for missing an opportunity to use the permanent collection to witness paradigm changes in science and to tell a more fully developed history of science.[217]

My biggest contribution to the presentation was spending a fair bit of time researching what actually happened with Boas, the Columbian Exposition, and the Field Museum in order to make sense of the Field Museum’s revisionist history. I reread George Stocking (1968). I walked through the museum’s permanent exhibits with Boas’ “Principles of Ethnological Classification” ([1887] 1974), taking photos of 1930s exhibits clearly falling in line with Otis T. Mason’s argument for taxonomic classification of cultural artifacts—i.e., exactly the kind of museum choice Boas explicitly argued against. If Boas’ ideas had inspired the Field Museum in 1893, there was little evidence of it in the mid-twentieth-century exhibits.

The Museum itself seemed to recognize the problem. The route through the permanent anthro-pology exhibits had been changed around 2012, directing visitors through a temporary exhibit of art by Bunky Echo Hawk that explicitly critiqued the way Native American heritage has been used by museums and American popular culture writ large. Once through the temporary exhibit, a placard warns about what comes next:

This gallery displays beautiful and important objects from several Native North American cultures. But the exhibits were created decades ago, and don’t reflect our current perspective. . . . In the future, we will renovate this gallery to complement The Ancient Americas, and communicate our current understanding of Native American peoples, past and present.

The reference to The Ancient Americas (opened in 2007) exhibit is relevant here for its clear connections to Boas. In the exhibit, artifacts are presented in cultural assemblages as Boas advised, often in diorama-like displays showing objects in use. It physically dovetails into the Alsdorf Hall of Northwest Coast and Arctic Peoples, which acts as a transition between The Ancient Americas to the more problematic Native American displays noted above. The Alsdorf Hall exhibit, developed in the 1980s, is distinctive for using Boas’ own ethnographic materials. In fact, it includes a life-scale replica of the ceremony that Boas was recreating in the widely circulated photo titled, “Hamats’a coming out of secret room.”6

Unsurprisingly, given it uses Boas’ ethnographic materials, the Alsdorf Hall exhibit follows what Boas recommended in order to demonstrate that “civilization is not something absolute, but that it is relative, and that our ideas and conceptions are true only so far as our civilization goes” ([1887] 1974: 66). To wit, Boas claimed that we need “the tribal arrangement of collections” (66) through which we can see “each ethnological specimen individually in its history and in its medium” (62). He states, “By regarding a single implement outside of its surroundings, outside of other phenomena affecting that people and its production, we cannot understand its meaning” (62). For Boas, this failure to understand the meaning of an object from its context makes it impossible to make valid claims about said object.

From this, we see the Field Museum was not exactly lying when they identified Boas as the anthropologist who informed their current anthropological sensibilities. Indeed, the most recent permanent addition to the museum, the Abbott Hall [218]of Conservation (opened in 2011) firmly interweaves the ideas of resource use and cultural context, pulling together an interdisciplinary approach to natural history and conservation. However, the history the museum is currently telling about its practices seems to elide several decades of the twentieth century. What happened there in the 1930s–1980s? I will revisit this question in my final reflection, but for now, let it suffice that they have rediscovered Papa Franz as a relevant contributor to twenty-first-century conversations, much as I have with my students.

Papa Franz is my copilot

When I began teaching Boas, the first challenge I knew I would face is a perennial one: getting students to actually do the assigned reading (cf. Jenks 2016). That objective is crucial since my institution prides itself on keeping most classes fewer than thirty students and focusing on discussion-based teaching. In this case, I elected to go with a two-question online prompt for every reading. Students would have to post their replies online an hour before each class, and for me, each day’s class prep included skimming through the responses to figure out how far they were from where I wanted them to be. Often, especially in the early going, it was very far. Raised on textbooks that use callout boxes and bold fonts to tell them what to memorize, many of my students were unused to reading texts that “buried the lede” and required that they read more closely to discern the main argument. I had seen this in other classes when I assigned scholarly articles or denser theoretical work. Boas, however, was not writing for other scholars in Anthropology and modern life. He was writing for the public.

I did not instantly grasp why the mix of scholarly style with a text for a lay audience would be useful. The ideas Boas was presenting were designed to be understood by an audience who were unlikely to be familiar with the premises of cultural relativism that he endorsed but who were comfortable with early twentieth-century writing conventions. In contrast, I had an audience raised on ideas of multiculturalism and pluralism but who were not skilled in handling the stylistic choices of a scholar. The content was not beyond the students’ understanding, so we could focus on the delivery system, as it were. I started focusing on that but I very quickly discovered something else: the issues that Boas chose to focus on in 1928 remain issues in the twenty-first-century United States. From this realization I began to regard Boas as my coteacher, not a text for which I needed to explain what he meant but a text speaking to my students from across time that we could engage in conversation. From this perspective, allow me to walk you through a week of teaching with Boas.

The discovery for students begins in the second paragraph of the first chapter. Boas describes popular conceptions of anthropology ca. 1928: “Anthropology is often considered a collection of curious facts, telling about the peculiar appearance of exotic people and describing their strange customs and beliefs. It is looked upon as an entertaining diversion, apparently without any bearing on the life of civilized communities” (11).

These words resonate with my students; in them they hear their parents, ca. 2015. “What are you going to do with that?” those parents ask in alarm when their children report their plans to major in anthropology. In the very next line, Boas [219]answers: “This opinion is mistaken.” He continues, “More than that, I hope to demonstrate that a clear understanding of the principles of anthropology illuminates the social processes of our own times and may show us, if we are ready to listen to its teachings, what to do and what to avoid” ([1928] 2004: 11). His claim is powerful, and I linger on it with students. I ask questions.

“When did Boas write these words?” I prompt, sending them to the copyright page. “Do you think what he’s going to tell us is still going to be relevant in the twenty-first century? Why or why not?”

The reading for the first day with Boas is short—only chapter one (7 pages) paired with another text.7 Every time I teach the text, a student will draw our attention to page seventeen, where Boas reveals his intent to “discuss problems of modern life in the light of results of anthropological studies” and names “two fundamental concepts: race and stability of culture.” There in the first week of class sits a ticking time bomb: we’re going to talk about race, a topic my white students have been taught to shy away from and my students of color eye suspiciously, too familiar both with the experience of racism and the American tendency to deny it. The students are less clear about what “the stability of culture” might mean, but they know their own sense of instability.

My students in the spring of 2014 are a different group than the ones I saw in 2011. That earlier group entered college with a “rug out from under us” sensibility about the 2008 recession that rocked the United States. Mention instability, and they would offer haunted looks and wince at mentions of the job market. The 2014 students, though, are a more optimistic bunch. They talk about the instability of culture in terms of the latest technological developments and knowing how to navigate social rules on Twitter and Snapchat as opposed to in person. My later students will want to talk about Black Lives Matter and Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, a reminder that every class of students is in their own here and now, but most will have some sense of a world prone to change. Their speculations prompt me to skip us ahead, and in our next class, we tackle chapter seven: The Stability of Culture.

Together we open the text on day 2, and I pause on the sentence that straddles pages 132–33: “The repetition of the same act without change, generation after generation, gives the impression of a biologically determined instinct.” It is a good place to stop to reveal the conventions of anthropological writing and to discuss how to read. “What is Boas arguing here?” I prompt. The students approach my question cautiously, not wanting to be wrong and sensing (correctly) there might be a trap. Sometimes they bite, risking a speculation about human behavior and instinct. Usually, though, I re-read aloud to them slowly, emphasizing the phrase, “gives the impression of.” We roll the phrase around, and look for other similar moments in the text, a plethora of “seems” and “appears” tripping through sentences that contain claims that students begin to realize are the ones Boas is going to discredit. “Remember the way the whole first paragraph of chapter one was Boas giving voice to others’ ideas,” I say to my students. Some years we even go back and look. “This is a voicing issue,” I point out. “You don’t find it in text books, so you [220]probably haven’t really noticed it before, but it is all over anthropology. Anthropologists almost always will tell you what the other side thinks before telling you why they are all wrong. Watch out for the seems! Be aware of passive voice! Why is the author creating distance between him or herself and the text?” The lesson in decoding is useful; Boas’ voicing is generally very clear once the students know how to recognize it. Many of the students seem to feel a boost in confidence from knowing what to look for. They’ll mention at later points in the semester that they noticed, “This author is doing that thing that Boas does with the voicing” or “I thought she was contradicting herself but then I realized I had missed the voicing.” I am half-convinced that the fondness they exhibit for Boas in my end of semester surveys is prompted by the pleasure of learning a new trick while we were reading him.

Chapter seven really starts getting interesting on page 138, when Boas writes, “On the ground of this experience we are inclined to consider every type of behavior that is marked by an immediate, involuntary reaction as instinctive.” Alarm bells sound for students—“inclined to consider” sounds an awful lot like “seems”—and true to form, Boas delivers his now familiar follow up: “This is an error.” ([1928] 2004: 138). In a rapid-fire series of examples, Boas reports on behaviors people may mistake as “organic” and demonstrates they are, in fact, “habitual.” I write these words on the board, and below them I write “nature” and “nurture.” This gets the students fired up. Nature-nurture is a standard topic of discussion in US high school classrooms. My students have honed opinions. They are ready to talk, and they are only slightly deflated when I point out that in our historical moment within Western science, there is long-standing consensus that it is both and anyone telling them otherwise is trying to sell them something. I let them kick their ideas around a bit, reminding them when they go too far down the nurture path that they are not lizards or quadrupeds, and our mammalian bipedalism creates real limits on culture. When they get too attached to nature, I bring out a collection of differently shaped gallon containers full of water8 and a bunch of plastic cups. I direct them to the text: “the faculty of developing a certain motor habit is organically determined. The particular form of movement is automatic, acquired by constant, habitual use” (Boas [1928] 2004: 139), and I invite them to participate in a contest to pour water without spilling it.

Within 15 seconds of the start of this particular game, the students develop deep antipathy for gallon milk jugs from Costco, a US bulk retailer. The jugs, engineered to be stackable without milk crates, are rectangular prisms with a large hole in the corner opposite the handle, more similar to a jerry can than any container most Americans would use to fill a cup. If picked up from the table in the way Americans pour, the Costco containers spill everywhere. The students reject the jugs, and I accuse them of hating the environment because they hate containers designed to reduce fuel and water waste. I show them how to rock the Costco jug forward for a spill-less pour, and I ask them to consider the culture demonstrated by their bodies.9 As I mop up puddles, we turn to page 148, where Boas tells them [221]what they just experienced: “The difficulty of changing forms [is] dependent upon well-established motor habits.” They believe him. They just felt it.

I bounce them back to page 143. “Conformity and stability are inseparably connected. Non-conformity breaks the force of tradition,” Boas writes. He has the students eating out of his hand. They volunteer examples of the challenges of tradition ranging from the media-fueled anxiety over gay marriage to the day they announced to their parents that they were not going to the state university that their families have attended since 1937. Within pages, Boas brings it even closer to home: “The uniformity of behavior is similar to that expected among ourselves of a member of a social ‘set.’ A person who does not conform to the habits of thought and actions of his ‘set’ loses standing and must leave” ([1928] 2004: 153–54). My students are traditional 18–22 year old undergraduates, and I watch their eyes unfocus as they mentally travel back to high school. Boas brings up Polynesia and feudal Europe, and the motivations of people in those cultures seem less foreign in light of what my students have just been prompted to consider about their own lives. The strange, as the saying goes, has become familiar.

Boas concludes his chapter by discussing change—when it happens, why it happens, how it happens. He observes, “Ordinarily the new ideas created in a society are not free but directed by the culture in which they arise. Only when the culture is shaken by the impact of foreign ideas or by violent changes of culture owing to disturbing conditions is the opportunity given to the individual to establish new lines of thought that may give a new direction to cultural change” ([1928] 2004: 163–64). His cited examples range from Chaka Zulu to the Russian Revolution, from the superstitions of college students to the decorative art of the Plains Indians. He lightly touches on themes he discusses thoroughly elsewhere (e.g., Boas 1940), pointing out the wide diffusion of apparently identical folk tales that mean different things to different peoples ([1928] 2004: 165) and illustrating the idea of cultural survivals using Jewish food taboos. Every paragraph offers a new snippet of the ethnographic record, easily fleshed out with examples, many of which can be drawn from the students themselves. They begin to question their own experiences, examining what is “automatic” in their lives. The familiar becomes increasingly strange.

Not every student loves Boas at the end of our second day with him. However, many of them are surprised at how easily they can follow his thinking once they get used to his writing. They are noticeably irritated the next class when we take a break from Boas to read Geertz’s “Thick description” (1973). I have to coax them through the sheep raid, explain how Geertz’s text is both describing and demonstrating the iterative quality of ethnography. They remember only the winks and being confused, and, by dint of repetition across multiple courses, that “it is turtles all the way down” (Geertz 1973: 29). They seem fonder of Papa Franz when we return to his early twentieth-century world, this time to read chapter two: The Problem of Race.

There is something inexorable about Boas’ patient delivery of his understanding of race. He walks the students through imagined populations where they might see darker- or lighter-skinned individuals, people with different hair color or texture, [222]faces with different shaped noses or lips, and he points out how “we are easily misled by general impressions” ([1928] 2004: 22). He reminds them that, “we classify the variety of forms according to our previous experiences and we are inclined to consider divergent forms that are well established in our consciousness as pure types” (23). I step in and have them consider their own families and the variety of phenotypes within it, starting the ball rolling by pointing out my own freckles and contrasting my inevitable sunburns to my brother’s carefree tans. We reproduce from our own population the claim that “not all members of a fraternity are alike” (24), and they exclaim in twenty-first-century alarm when he declares that “racial purity” can only be the result of inbreeding (26–29). Six weeks later, when I teach them about speciation, they refer back to exactly this place in Boas. They go back to page 34, where Boas concludes his discussion on the mobile and ever interbreeding human population by stating, “for these reasons, none of our modern populations is stable from a hereditary point of view” (34). Unsurprisingly, Boas has set them up nicely to understand evolution.

At this point in the text, Boas begins to discuss how nutrition and environmental factors affect bodily form, and I usually digress to tell them about Boas’ work on skull elasticity. I describe the dataset of thousands of skull measurements, the publication of the data, and the 2002 scholarly debate. I reveal that a Google search that I did for the term “Boasians” in 2003 landed me on a David Duke–run white supremacist website, which spewed vitriol about how Boas and his followers had corrupted the academy (the same basic idea shows up on “metapedia,” which appears to be the centralized repository for white-supremacist ideas on the web in 2015; see Baker [2010] for a more nuanced discussion of how Boas became the bête-noir of white supremacists). We discuss why Boas might make advocates of “racial purity” so angry, and we discuss how the science of race works. I tell them about the evolutionary theories of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, and we turn to page 38 to read, “On general biological grounds it is important to know whether any one of the human races is, in regard to form or function, further removed from the ancestral animal form than another, whether the races can be arranged in an ascending series.”

Contemporary anthropologists can be forgiven a furrowed brow at this sentence. Boas wrote this? Indeed. He did so to set up a series of claims that gets students urgently raising their hands, eager to share. “White people have ape lips!” someone will blurt out, their finger on page 37, and I let them relish his subversion of the various claims they’ve all heard (but pretend they have not) about the noses of black people as evidence of ape-like-ness. He shows them the silliness of the enterprise devoted to pegging races to the evolutionary ladder. He gets more complicated when he discusses brain size, and my students are discomfited when he says on average there are differences in brain size between different races. They are not entirely mollified when he states, “The differences between races are so small that they lie within the narrow range in the limits of which all forms may function equally well” ([1928] 2004: 41), and they are outright confused when he tells them, “In any attempt to place the human races in an evolutionary series we must also remember that modern races are not wild but domesticated forms” (42). Humans are different, what we regard as “race” has to do with categories we’ve created but which have some element of observable fact to them, and all of this connects to the idea of self-domestication?[223]

For a four-field course, this is a brilliant moment. The students are genuinely baffled, and they get more baffled when I tell them we need to figure out what this whole domestication argument is. I can almost hear them thinking that they thought this was one of those outdated things in the text. They get more unnerved when I back them up to basics: what is culture? What does it mean that humans shape their environments and then are shaped by them? Because the second half of that statement describes domestication. We adapt ourselves to be useful to one another, to fit within a human designed environment. This is every culture in a nutshell. What traits do we select for? What qualities do we reward? How can we think about this with something we typically consider “domesticated”? I usually go with dogs, although sometimes we talk cats or cows or horses. I’m increasingly partial to Belyaev’s fox domestication experiment in Siberia, which almost never fails to leave students open-mouthed and clamoring for more. Belyaev’s experiments have the virtue of being on YouTube (https://youtu.be/0jFGNQScRNY), which brings another voice into the classroom and lets us discuss how the video narrators, Boas, and we agree or disagree.

Once we get the mechanics of domestication down for familiar household pets, we return to humans. Why might domestication obscure what the original “wild type” might be? How could certain populations select for certain traits? What are the consequences? Digressions are common at this point. We discuss the idea that taste receptors that some people inherit make cilantro the grossest food on the planet. We compare earlobe attachments and tongue rolling skills. We ponder lactose tolerance and its variants, treating the ability to drink milk into adulthood as the mutant ability that it is and contemplating this evidence of ongoing human evolution.

Just as the students start pursuing genetic explanations with enthusiasm, however, Boas brings them back. He points to environmental factors that affect what skills we develop, challenging early twentieth-century canards about “primitives” with more acute eyesight than Europeans or better hearing. We improve the aptitudes we use most often, and Boas points out, “In all our everyday habits imitation of habits of the society to which we belong exerts its influence over the functioning of our minds and bodies” ([1928] 2004: 49). He takes on those who would claim greater mental faculties for some races over others, noting, “Under these conditions it is well-nigh impossible to determine with certainty the hereditary traits in mental behavior” (50). He then teases out the counterargument made by advocates of intelligence tests, a hot field after the US Army tests during World War I.

Twenty-first century US college students know all about tests, and many of them are relatively traumatized by the idea of standardized tests in a way that might not appear in places where admission to university is the result of a history of success at standardized tests. While my students work through Boas’ explanations of the ways that spatial reasoning and language skill vary wildly depending on the cultural milieu in which children are raised, what they really want to talk about what happens on page 57. That’s where Boas describes intelligence tests taken by black Americans in rural and urban areas. He explains the results of one Dr. Klineberg, observing, “While the results of the tests taken on those who had just moved to the city or to New York showed low averages, those who had lived in the cities or in [224]New York showed the better results the longer they had lived in their new environment. The reason must be looked for in the character of the tests which are based on the experiences of city life and not on that of a rural community.” The students ask if this is what people mean when they say a test is biased, and I tell them yes. They ruminate on this, and I tell them about my own experiences coaching impoverished students in underperforming schools through practice tests. I describe a test question for second-graders that showed pictures of the wind blowing toward a sailboat from different angles and asked the students which most clearly illustrates cause and effect. I talk about a picture of a hose with the instruction for students to identify the first letter of the word, and the number of times a hand shot up and a student whispered, “Miss Holly, what is that?” We discuss what has to be true in a child’s world to understand how a sailboat relates to the wind or to know what a hose is. They realize belatedly that it is not a trick question when someone says, “Well, being landlocked might be a problem.” They pile on, “What if you live in a high rise?” “Who the heck has a sailboat?” “What kind of hose was it? Like a fire hose or a garden hose? I’d say it started with f.”

It works. Boas is speaking their language, and they see exactly why they need to doubt claims of intelligence based on tests. It reassures them on the one hand, because many of them have performed poorly on standardized tests, but it also makes them very receptive to Boas’ near concluding remark: “It does not matter from which point of view we consider culture, its forms are not dependent upon race” ([1928] 2004: 60). It also helps them understand the logic and import behind the final sentence of chapter two: “They convince us of the independence of race and culture because their distribution does not follow racial lines” (62). This style of argument, negating a claim by negating the relationship between its constituent parts, is unfamiliar to many of my students. Most will not quite get how to use it for another year or two, although I urge them to look at the premises of claims for weaknesses. Check the foundations, I tell them. What must be true for the argument to hold? Boas made a career of poking holes in the premises of racist science, of recognizing when a person’s own culture or experience was more on display than the object of his/her study (cf. Boas [1887] 1974). Learn to see the author, I urge them. What cultural lenses is any given writer wearing?

We wrap chapter two and head off to other classes, coming back together to talk about chapter three, “The Interrelation of Races.” I usually pair this with a more contemporary reading, favoring an article from Roberts, Bell, and Murphy that appeared in Anthropology & Education Quarterly in 2008 called “Flipping the script.” A lovely bit of classroom ethnography, this article illustrates why the color-blind ideology used in the United States is racist in a way my students can access.10 They [225]laugh uncomfortably when I walk into the classroom and proclaim, “I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but I’m a white woman.” My white students squirm when I describe someone as black and tell them that saying “black” is not racist. They acknowledge with some trepidation that they are not skilled in talking about race, seeming at least partially aware that not talking about it is a symptom of something. Here I introduce them to the concept of privilege. The students of color nod as I explain that not talking about or thinking about race is a privilege, and we talk about the advantages that accrue to people in situations where they can safely assume that no one has preconceptions about them.

Every class is tentative in a different way, depending on its composition. Some students jump into the race discussion as if they have been starving to have it. Others uneasily eye their classmates, aware more acutely than usual that not everyone in the room has the same racial experiences. A few seek to bury themselves in books or laptops. But I have their attention when I tell them to ignore race is to practice another kind of racism. I try to get them to see the consequence of potentially invalidating someone’s real lived experience. I offer them the standard sociological/anthropological claim that race is a social construction, and I tell them that some people will misinterpret that to say that racism is not real. The effects of the social construction, I point out forcefully, are very real. Regardless of whether we like it or not, race and racism have real effects in our twenty-first-century world every day. The only people who can ignore it are those privileged enough to not have to worry that it will touch them.

So how, I ask, is the interrelation of races (in Boas’ terms) constructed? This is when Papa Franz and I get to do some of our most important teaching. I direct them to page 64, and Boas offers them the phrase “race consciousness” to describe the awareness of race, whether one’s own or others. I intercede here to tell them of W. E. B. Du Bois’ idea of double consciousness and point out how Boas is building on it. By this point, they are almost all on board. Boas’ questions and concerns are our questions and concerns.

I could continue in this vein to explore the entire book, but I think the idea is clear enough. In the course of the two and a half weeks I teach with Boas, we read him explain the problems with eugenics and take a hard look at fetal genetic testing and stem cell research. We examine contemporary debates about immigration and let Boas weigh in with his arguments about nationalism. We wrestle with the problems facing US schools and look at how Boas critiques the role of nationalism, the influence of class interests, and the traditionalism of the intellectuals in his education chapter. Eventually, someone will ask why we still have the same problems and are still having the same conversations when Boas already drew our attention to them in the 1930s. I usually answer flippantly that if I knew that, I’d be making millions as a consultant somewhere, but the question is real.

Why rediscovery?

Anthropology seems a discipline prone to crisis, a feature that has led to much hand-wringing in the contemporary moment about demonstrating our relevance [226]in an era that fetishizes the so-called STEM11 fields (or “STEAM” fields if you want to be au courant) and rarely counts anthropology among them. Much of this crisis-proneness seems to be a product of disciplinary self-consciousness, and waves of realization that make earlier work seem not just ethically dubious but actively harmful. My own training spent a fair bit of time on the “handmaiden to colonialism” problem, as well as the decision of many anthropologists to “take their marbles and go home” after the dropping of the atomic bomb (Margaret Mead, quoted in Cole 1995: 175), the ethical debate around Project Camelot in Chile in the 1960s (Hill 1985; Solovey 2001), the rejection of grand narratives during the “postmodern turn” of the 1980s and 90s, and the heated debates about embedded anthropologists during the occupation of Iraq in the 2000s (Lucas 2008; Weinberger 2008). Even the 1919 censure of Boas, which was not revoked until 2005, was undertaken because he had publicly (and accurately) criticized fellow anthropologists for acting as spies under the cover of anthropology during World War I (Price 2000; AAA 2005). It is in some ways not surprising that a discipline that embraces cultural relativism would find itself so frequently in an ethical muddle. For some of us, our ethnographic work necessarily confronts us with worldviews that challenge our preconceptions, unmoor our certainties about how, exactly, to do no harm or to represent conflicting views fairly. For others, the theories and arguments of the West that are so often privileged in our training seem to justify the very injustices we wish to fight. We must acknowledge we live in a world we have constructed, including in our roles as anthropologists (cf. Cattelino 2010), and that some constructions of the world actively damage what other groups might hold precious. One consequence of this is that the more aware we become of the consequences of our cultural constructions over time, the more we seem particularly prone to a complete rejection of the work of our forebears.

We see this in the Field Museum exhibits that began this essay; after rejecting Boas in 1894 and pursuing a different approach to anthropology, they realized perhaps they had thrown the baby out with the bath water. Or worse, perhaps they had taken lessons from the wrong strain of anthropology. Or maybe they (and we) have just experienced a change of fashion. The first option, though, seems to me to be the most correct. As a discipline, we have a tendency toward wholesale rejection when a theorist falls out of favor and an Oedipal tendency toward making our names by killing our forebears.

This, at least, is how Herbert Lewis (2001) explained what happened to Franz Boas, tracing two waves of Boas denigration. The first in the 1950s–60s decried Boas’ resistance to generalized laws and the trappings of “real” science (Lewis 2001: 447); the second in 1990s curiously claimed that Boas’ work supported rather than challenged scientific racism (449). Arnold Krupat tried to make sense of the whiplash-inducing critiques and interpretations of Boas’ corpus, finally concluding that what everyone had missed was that Boas was writing “in the ironic mode” (1988). Defined by “its militantly negational stance,” (Krupat 1988: 109), the ironic mode is a skeptical mode, and as Krupat describes it, it makes Boas [227]appear postmodern: his “real delight in his ready ability to root out assertions that could not stand up to a militant and aggressive skepticism” showed “parallels to contemporary deconstruction’s delight in exposing the errors and the vacuity of traditional humanism” (Krupat 1988: 110). This is an important observation, and it helps explain claims like Michel Verdon’s remark, “There are, however, other Boases” (2007: 442). Verdon’s effort to reconcile the apparent scientist and activist and the failure of Boas’ ethnography to live up to neo-Boasian claims of historicism leave him frustrated.

I present these perspectives on Boas to remind us of how Boas has come down to American anthropologists in particular, and to invite anthropologists in other places and traditions to reconsider him. Krupat and Verdon both have their fingers on something with their idea of the skeptic, the “other Boases.” What I note is that reading Boas, beyond his two books for general audiences, is like reading half of a telephone conversation. The significance of “On alternating sounds” ([1889] 1974) is completely opaque for a reader who does not know that “alternating sounds” were regarded as evidence of primitiveness in languages “which had not yet evolved far enough for the sound/meaning relationship to become fixed” (Stocking 2001: 72). That I do not know how to track down the theorist(s?) against whom Boas was writing is telling. At least Otis T. Mason, the target in “The principles of ethnological classification,” is named. It strikes me that Boas was definitely engaged in skeptical science, but that perhaps it was more his army of forgotten interlocutors that has left us with such a fragmented idea of the man.

All of which brings me back the Papa Franz who shares my classroom. The ironic mode is there, I suppose; as noted, he consistently sets up ideas he plans to skewer. This is also, however, one of the preferred scholarly modes of our discipline. What comes through from him more clearly is a vision of the burning questions of the day and how anthropology can help us think through them critically. He is often equivocal, but it is usually because he does not make claims he cannot back with evidence. He is, after all, setting us tasks, and they are ones anthropological leaders rejected almost before his body was cold. In his critique of Boas’ posthumously published Race and democratic society, Leslie White wrote, “Boas’ attack on race prejudice is like an attempt to rid a psychopath of the delusion that he is Napoleon by demonstrating that his belief is scientifically—chronologically, anthropometrically, linguistically—unsound” (1947: 371). In short, it is not worth the effort, White argued, continuing to excoriate all the ideas in Boas’ work for not paying enough attention to economics.

In other words, White dropped the baton. What he and the cultural materialists brought to the table could have been used to interrogate the very problems Boas identified in 1928: race, the inter-relation of races, nationalism, [228]eugenics, criminology, the stability of culture, education. Then again, Boas already had a rebuke for them before they were out of the gate: “It would be an error to claim that all manifestations of cultural life are determined by economic conditions. The simplest cultural forms prove this” ([1928] 2004: 242–43). In what appears to be a fit of pique, we anthropologists got distracted. The discipline tried to come up with a theory of everything, got tangled up in global politics in ways we came to regret, and fractured into a variety of splinter groups, each holding the others in disdain. Meanwhile the world continued to turn, and we still struggled with racism, nationalism, eugenics, criminology, cultural instability, and education, albeit in different manifestations in different times and places (e.g., settler colonialism, intellectual property, social media revolutions, etc.).

What Papa Franz offers my students—and me—is a path for engagement. Here we live, in interesting times as the Chinese curse says, and it is too easy to regard the classroom as detached from all of it. Then this nineteenth-century physicist-turned-anthropologist walks in and says, hey, wake up, we’ve got tools! We have critical thinking and evidence and just because all we know now is what we were raised with doesn’t mean it has to stay that way. Nor does our classroom work need to stay theoretical and avoid activism. We don’t just study groups, he points out, we are the substance of groups, and “the forces that bring about the changes are active in the individuals composing the social groups, not in the abstract culture. . . . All we can do is to watch and judge day by day what we are doing, to understand what is happening in the light of what we have learned and to shape our steps accordingly” ([1928] 2004: 246). Lest we not heed his point, he makes it more forcefully nearly twenty years later: “There is much to be done. The scientist has to become more conscious of his duties; we must extend the field of education so as to overcome bigotry” (1945: 219). Perhaps joyful is too strong a word for what Boas offers us, but I’ll call it purposeful. And in a time when the scale of the world’s problems seem intractable: hopeful.


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———. 2010. “The cult of Franz Boas and his ‘conspiracy’ to destroy the white race.” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 154 (1): 8–18.

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———. 1940. Race language and culture. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

———. 1945. Race and democratic society. New York: J. J. Augustin.

———. (1887) 1974..“On alternating sounds.” In The Franz Boas reader: The shaping of American anthropology, 1883–1911, edited by George Stocking, 72–76. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

———. (1889) 1974. “The principles of ethnological classification.” In The Franz Boas reader: The shaping of American anthropology, 1883–1911, edited by George Stocking, 61–67. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

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Redécouvrir papa Franz: Enseigner L’anthropologie et la vie moderne

Résumé : Sollicité pour choisir des textes pour un cours d’anthropologie quatre champs (“four fields”) de première année dans un département d’anthropologie et sociologie, j’ai décidé d’enseigner le texte de Franz Boas L’Anthropologie et la vie moderne (1928). Après six ans, je suis convaincue de l›intérêt d›enseigner ce texte aux étudiants en début de parcours universitaire. Cet essai étudie comment un manuel du 20e siècle s’applique aux questions du 21e siècle et comment Boas continue de jouer un rôle actif dans la représentation de l’anthropologie offerte au grand public, par exemple au Field Museum de Chicago. Le travail de Boas sur les questions d’ethnicité, de nationalisme, d’eugénisme et d’éducation permet aux étudiants et à d’autres de se sentir en dialogue avec la long tradition de l’anthropologie “quatre champs”, et nous offre à nous, anthropologues de profession, un espace à apprécier dans notre histoire si souvent source de controverse.

HOLLY SWYERS is Associate Professor of Anthropology at Lake Forest College. She specializes in historically informed ethnographies of the contemporary United States. Her work is primarily focused on how Americans form and maintain community, how members are enculturated into the nation-state, and the variety of access routes to an “American” identity. A key element of her work is exploring how Americans craft a sense of continuity around the idea of constant change. She [231]is the author of Wrigley regulars: Finding community in the bleachers (2010) and is presently working on a project about definitions and understandings of adulthood in the United States.

Holly Swyers
Department of Anthropology
Lake Forest College
555 North Sheridan Road
Lake Forest, Illinois 60045


1. Boas argued that the effects of environment on cranial capacity undermined claims that cranial capacity was a fixed racial characteristic. After presenting his findings to the US Congress in 1910, his work was heavily critiqued, leading to his 1912 defense of his methods and conclusions in American Anthropologist. As scientific racism and eugenics continued to bedevil anthropology and politics, Boas finally published his raw data in 1928, inviting reanalysis of the full 504-page dataset (Gravlee, Bernard, and Leonard 2003: 326). Readers wishing to learn more about Boas’s report to Congress can find a concise summary in Tibor Frank’s 2009 book chapter, “The Dillingham Report, Franz Boas, and the measurement of U.S. ‘new’ immigrants, 1907–1911.”

2. La plus ça change…

3. The other three were botany, geology, and zoology, for reasons relating to the Museum’s reconstituted mission of 1905 (http://www.fieldmuseum.org/about/history/timeline).

4. These are direct quotations from the “Opening the Vaults” exhibit, drawn from several different placards.

5. Both the emphasis on anthropology within the special exhibit and my inclusion in the project drove our focus on the history of anthropology as a case study for the collective memory work that the exhibit was doing.

6. http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Franz_Boas_-_posing_for_figure_in_USNM_exhibit_entitled_-_Hamats%27a_coming_out_of_secret_room_-_1895_or_before.jpg

7. I use a chapter from Veronica Strang’s What anthropologists do (2009). It is a relatively easy read, and the students get it easily, but for that reason they also seem less inclined to discuss it.

8. Approximately 4 liters, a standard size for selling milk in the United States.

9. I discovered this demonstration by happy accident when consumer complaints about the Costco gallons made US national news. Any example of an innovation that plays against established motor skills can work, and similar demonstrations can assist in teaching Marcel Mauss’ “Techniques of the Body.”

10. This ideology is best captured by the sentence, “I don’t see color.” Many white Americans are taught to use this phrase as a defense against being perceived as racist, and they read it as saying they are not discriminating against someone based on color. US students of color often hear the same phrase as erasing their history and rendering them invisible. The upshot is that any mention of race in a “color-blind” context is shot down as racist, preventing anyone from discussing any real race-related issues that might exist.

11. This abbreviation is used in the United States for “Science, Technology, Engineering, Math.” STEAM adds “Arts.”