The Best Things Marxism Brought, Part I: Early Anthropology and Franz Boas (1858-1942)

The topic of Marxism in academia is hot, as it has been since The Communist Manifesto hit the presses more than 150 years ago in 1848. I’ve been reflecting on the prevalence of postmodern approaches in anthropology for a while, a topic which is especially more relevant now that more and more people are discussing them after hearing more publicly its criticisms by social science popularizers like Jordan Peterson. The usual argument is that many of the ills of the modern academy stem from a hardcore dedication to Marxism, especially in its more subverted form of social justice advocacy. I think there’s an ounce of truth there that many of the folks who advocate for bad approaches in the social sciences are operating (at least partially) under the guise of Marxist justifications, but really leaving the contribution of Marxism to anthropology and the social science at just that doesn’t paint a complete picture.

  • Early Anthropology and Franz Boas (1858-1942)
  • Pushback on Boasianism and the Anthropology of Leslie Alvin White (1900-1975)
  • Marxism and the Archaeology of V Gordon Childe (1892-1957)
  • The Return of Cultural Materialism and Marvin Harris (1927-2001)

This is the first part of what will be a four-part series on the influence of Marxism in early anthropology. As we move forward over the coming weeks, I will be sure to link you to the successive blogposts in the series above.

Most who are unfamiliar with the development of anthropology may be unaware of the importance of Marx’s perspectives and the impacts they made on early 20th century social science. Before being highjacked by critical theorists operating under postmodernist programs, the fields of cultural anthropology and archaeology greatly benefited from a Marxist appraoch. In fact, while we often continuously claim that these egalitarian undercurrents which are present in many of the methodologies and anti-scientific approaches in modern critical theory are Marxist, it’s rather well accepted that these attitudes were prevalent in anthropology even prior to the introduction of Marxist approaches in the mid-20th century. I think for certain that it was ultimately through a Marxist lens that anthropology was changed for the better.

Setting the Stage – “Papa Franz”

American anthropology has, and always will be, governed by the ghost of its father, Franz Boas. Born in 1858 in Westphalia, Germany, Boas was unique as far as social scientists come. Originally trained as a geographer, Boas’ dissertation was actually in physics and was on, “Contributions to the Understanding of the Color of Water.” The title and topic of his dissertation may seem irrelevant to what he did later, but understanding Boas’ approach then are just as important as his views later to come.

Boas Hoop
Prior to becoming America’s first professor of anthropology, Boas worked in several prominent American museums where he took a number of bizarre pictures, including the one above.

As a geographer, Boas was interested in the reasons behind cultural variation. Back then, the reasons why groups of people differed in their collective behaviors were poorly understood. During his first stint as an ethnographer, Boas spent a year in 1883 with Inuits in Canada’s Baffin Island, where he tried studying Inuit migrations. It was during this experience, after Boas and his guide spent 26 hours lost in the Arctic’s perpetual winter night, that Boas penned his famous quote which would later govern anthropology’s primary virtue of cultural relativism:

I often ask myself what advantages our ‘good society’ possesses over that of the ‘savages’ and find, the more I see of their customs, that we have no right to look down upon them … We have no right to blame them for their forms and superstitions which may seem ridiculous to us. We ‘highly educated people’ are much worse, relatively speaking.

Sixteen years later, Boas went on to found the first anthropology department in the United States at Columbia University. Boas’ influence on the field manifested in two major forms. First, Boas sought to unify four separate studies of human variation into one field. To this day, American anthropology has been guided by what is called the “four field approach.” Combining the disciplines of cultural anthropology, archaeology, biological anthropology, and linguistics, the standard for American anthropology departments has been to include at least one anthropologist from three of these sub-disciplines in their faculty listings (although that standard is changing, as I wrote about here).

From Whence Relativism? The Early Evolutionists
Dialectical Materialism
Side note: Those who are familiar with Marx and Engels’ dialectic of history might recognize inklings of these early evolutionists in their theory. This is not a coincidence. Marx and Engels were prominent readers of Morgan and Tylor, and much of their early work (along with Hegel) shaped what was to become Marxist historiography.

Boas’ other contribution was his primary theoretical approach, known as historical particularism. Boas came to anthropology at a time when a strict form of universalism was prevalent in the field. Previously anthropologists, such as the Englishman EB Tylor and the American Lewis H Morgan championed a view of human society known as unilineal social evolution (a theory whose development I wrote about elsewhere). The purpose of anthropology, under the social evolutionists’ approach, was to document the ways in which society evolved through a rather strict series of evolutionary stages. The traditional teachings are that Tylor believed society progressed from an animistic stage to polytheism to monotheism to atheism (although it’s unlikely he was as strict on this form of evolutionism as your ANTH 101 professor will tell you, and his view of atheism was more deist than actually atheist), while Morgan believed society moved from savagery to barbarism to civilization all of which are determined by the type of technology that societies used.

Unfortunately for the evolutionists, their beliefs were strict and didn’t seek to characterize actual processes which guide cultural evolution, furthermore, as Boas would argue, there was almost no method to their madness; instead of allowing the data to speak for itself, Boas claimed his predecessors were in the business of fitting the data to their presuppositions. Boas’ attack on the evolutionists was harsh, although not undue. The evolutionists’ strict adherence to their frameworks had made much of the anthropological literature a plug-and-play system of sorts where many researchers were ignoring vast quantities of data to fit answers they already had.

Boas further believed, from both epistemological and methodological standpoints, that knowing the actual history of a culture was near-impossible: although you see societies using bows and arrows now, who is to say that they weren’t using something more advanced before or that arrows weren’t the best tool for the environment? Furthermore, how could you ever possibly know either of the answers to these questions and why is it that complex societies existed all around the world without ever having invented guns or written language? It was therefore the foremost duty of an anthropologist to operate with individual cultures on the smallest, most granular level in order to try and reconstruct as much as is possible. For Boas, the only way this could be done was through an inductive approach: in a sense, you must gather as much data as possible and generalize from there. Stating in The Methods of Ethnology in 1920, Boas clarifies the historical particularist position (an ultimately fatalist one):

…the ultimate questions are as near to our hearts as they are to those of other scholars, only we do not hope to be able to solve an intricate historical problem by a formula…It is, of course, true that we can never hope to obtain incontrovertible data relating to the chronological sequence of events, but certain general broad outlines can be ascertained with a high degree of probability, even of certainty.

Boas further goes on to clarify his position, stating that the particularist approach:

…is based on a study of the dynamic changes that may be observed at the present time. We refrain from the attempt to solve the fundamental problem of the general development of civilization until we have been able to unravel the processes that are going on under our eyes.

The Development of American Anthropology

Boas’ approach was a major success in American anthropology. This is ironically for historical particularist reasons, as being the first professor of anthropology in the United States gave Boas the unique advantage of shaping the field into whatever he wanted it to be. For a short while, Boas’ approach was even applied to physical anthropology, such as in a landmark study where he measured the skulls of European immigrants to the United States showing, contrary to the idea that people are born with innate skull shapes, that even the skulls of the immigrants would converge to the rest of the American population (Boas was wrong, by the way, and it took 90 years for someone to double-check his data). Over time, Boas spawned many students including Alfred Kroeber (his first PhD student), Edward Sapir (of the now famous Sapir-Whorf hypothesis of linguistic relativity which argues that the structure of one’s language shapes one’s perception of the world), and Ruth Benedict, who as a more notoriously relativist scholar than Boas (whom she called “Papa Franz”), once stated:

The trouble with life isn’t that there is no answer, it’s that there are so many answers.

Boas was close friends with the father of structural anthropology, Claud Levi-Strauss (1908-2009). In fact, Boas died in Strauss’ arms after collapsing from a stroke during dinner in 1942.

As it worked out, Boasian relativism dominated American anthropology until it was superseded by a timely resurrection of Lewis Henry Morgan’s ideas in the 1940s. In fact, most of America’s top anthropology departments today were founded by Boas’ students, and even now his theories are held in high regards by many anthropologists I know.

That said, the benefits of Boas’ legacy have been difficult to parse out. In arguing against the cultural universalists like EB Tylor and Lewis Henry Morgan, Boas was making a very controversial claim: not only did we not have enough information to make the sort of universalist theories that the evolutionists wanted to make, but because the history of each society is so complex and must be sorted out with so much rigor, we would never have enough information to answer any of them. Even now, most sophisticated defenses of Boas’ approach have more to do with the process of induction as a method, rather than some statement that no cultures can be compared.

Although there are few actual “Boasians” around to this day, what you do see in anthropology are shadows on the wall as a reminder of his legacy. Some anthropologists do claim that cultures cannot systematically be compared. Many more anthropologists subscribe to Boas’ belief in psychic unity, or that everyone is born fundamentally the same and that mental differences are simply a construct of the society each person’s upbringing and enculturation. As Boas stated in The Methods of Ethnology:

…the social behavior of man depends to a great extent upon the earliest habits which are established before the time when connected memory begins, and that many so-called racial or hereditary traits are to be considered rather as a result of early exposure to a certain form of social conditions….Much of the difference in the behavior of adult male and female may go back to this cause.

People still debate to this day whether Boas was as relativistic as we claim or if it was his even further relativistic students who changed our perception of him, but I believe the quotes given here speak for themselves. At any rate, Boas’ approach was to dominate the whole of American anthropology for the most part until the mid-1940s, when Leslie Alvin White (a hero of mine), reintroduced Morgan and Marx to the theoretical forefront of anthropological theory, the topic of which will be discussed in my next blog post.

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Similar Posts:

The Four-Field Approach: American Anthropologist Wants Science Back

Who Are the Evolutionary Anthropologists?

Quillette: The Dangers of Dugin’s Particularism

Recommended Reading:

Anthropological Theory: An Introductory History (McGee & Warms, 2016)

The Rise of Anthropological Theory: A History of Theories of Culture (Harris, 1968)

The Methods of Ethnology (Boas, 1920)

The Science of Culture, a Study of Man and Civilization (White, 1949)

2 thoughts on “The Best Things Marxism Brought, Part I: Early Anthropology and Franz Boas (1858-1942)”

    1. Thanks, although you should note that I did not call Boas a Marxist. I’ve read the chapter, and while I do believe Boas was biased as an ideologue (note that he was even a relativist when he was studying the physics of water color), I find MacDonald’s book rather substanceless and his knowledge of cultural group selection very sophomoric.


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