Franz Boas: cultural history for the present, or obsolete natural history?

Authors

  • Michel Verdon

    Corresponding author
    1. Université de Montréal
      Dép. d'anthropologie, Université de Montréal, C.P. 6128, Succursale Centre-ville, Montréal, Québec, Canada H3C 3J7. michel.verdon@umontreal.ca
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Dép. d'anthropologie, Université de Montréal, C.P. 6128, Succursale Centre-ville, Montréal, Québec, Canada H3C 3J7. michel.verdon@umontreal.ca

Abstract

Recently, some neo-Boasian anthropologists have portrayed Boas as an anthropologist with a deep sense of history, of the individual, and of agency. Focusing on Boas's ethnographic practice rather than his theoretical and programmatic statements, I first find an ‘atomistic’ (opposite of holistic) ethnographer, and a deep convergence between this atomism and Linnaean-type natural history. In Foucault and Jacob's interpretation of natural history, this means studying socio-cultural phenomena through their external manifestations, and removes historicity, and even individual cultures, from Boas's ethnography. Reviewing possible counter-evidence from the holistic Boas (his work on style, meaning, the ‘genius of a people,’ texts, secondary explanations, and psychology), I retrieve the same natural historian, and the same atomism. All these facets of his practice thus appear as surface manifestations of this underlying épistémè, which provides a single interpretative framework making it possible to integrate most of his ethnographic work. Overall, this worldview leaves little, or no, room for individuals and their agency.

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