Franz Boas and the Culture Concept in Historical Perspective1


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    This article was first presented informally to a meeting of the History of Science Dinner Club, University of California, Berkeley, in March 1964, and subsequently, in very nearly its present form, to the History of Science Colloquium, University of California, Berkeley, and to the Department of Anthropology, University of Pennsylvania, in October and November, 1965. It is intended in part as sequel to an earlier article in this same journal (Stocking 1963a), and like that article draws on material in a paper presented to the Conference on the History of Anthropology of the Social Science Research Council in 1962 (Stocking 1962). I would like to thank Paul Forman, Roger Hahn, A. I. Hallowell, Dell Hymes, and Sheldon Rothblatt for their stimulus and assistance, and my research assistant, David Nicholas, for his translations of portions of Boas (1889).


It has been argued that Franz Boas contributed little to the emergence of the culture concept in anthropology and in fact hindered its growth. In the context of an earlier re-evaluation of the role of E. B. Tylor, it is argued here that in the work of Boas the concept was in fact provided with much of the basis of its modern anthropological meaning. In developing his argument against racial mental differences, Boas proceeded by showing that the behavior of all men, regardless of race or cultural stage, was determined by a traditional body of habitual behavior patterns passed on through what we would now call enculturative processes and buttressed by ethically tainted secondary rationalizations. The behavioral significance of the older humanist-evolutionist idea of culture was thus inverted, and the basis laid for the notion of culture as a primary determinant of behavior.

The fundamental concepts … in any of the disciplines of science are always left indeterminate at first and are only explained to begin with by reference to the realm of phenomena from which they were derived; it is only by means of a progressive analysis of the material of observation that they can be made clear and can find a significant and consistent meaning.

Sigmund Freud (as quoted by Kroeber and Kluckhohn 1952:42)

… this attachment to inherited names appears much stronger as soon as we consider realities of a less material order. That is because the transformations in such cases almost always take place too slowly to be perceptible to the very men affected by them. They feel no need to change the label, because the change of content escapes them.

Marc Bloch (1961:159)