Franz Boas is widely hailed as the “father of American anthropology.” An immigrant from Germany who first came to these shores in the 1880s, rejected the prevailing belief among Western Europeans and Europeans. they relegated people from other races and regions to the underdeveloped state at best and savagery at worst.
For Boas, cultures emerged in response to geographic and environmental factors that determined what was needed for survival. He has developed what is known as cultural relativism (in an anthropological sense, not used in current cultural wars). This understanding maintains that all humans are innately equal, and that they develop in the context of social learning, and that societies can be better understood through observation without prejudice. His ideas led to a seismic shift to anthropological study and fueled his subsequent activism for racial and gender equality.
Canadian Arctic living with the Inuit of Baffin Island. He arrived in the fall of 1883 and, to the best of his ability, he lived the Eskimo, learning his language, his lifestyle, and his cosmology.
For the Canadian anthropologist Ludger Müller-Wille, who has also worked with the Inuit, exploring this period of Boas’ life is the key to understanding his later intellectual development. In “The Franz Boas Enigma”, he tries with little success to explain why this is so.
Müller-Wille begins his book following Boas’ early life and education. Born from a Jewish family in the city of Minden, Germany, Boas grew up at a time of increasing nationalism and anti-Semitism. His personal experiences as a victim of discrimination had a lot to do with the universalism he would adopt as an adult.
Revolutionary in the 19th century
A talented student, Boas pursued physics at university but, despite his degree, shifted his attention to geography and the emerging science of anthropology. Long before traveling to the Arctic, he became fascinated with its Inuit inhabitants, investigating their distribution and movement throughout the region. He became convinced that his culture grew in response to the migration of game animals, the geographical distribution of the land and the environment.
Such an analysis is evident, but for 19th century Europeans this was revolutionary. However, Müller-Wille does not care about Europe’s cultural landscape at the moment, which is unfortunate for those who may stumble upon it. In the 1880s, the Arctic remained a mysterious and distant place for Europeans, with vast unmapped expanses. Franklin’s disastrous Expedition was a fairly recent story, and it was widely believed to have been eaten by the Inuit, who considered themselves primitive at best. : that the men of the expedition had cannibalized each other). The fact that the Inuit lived in small groups was taken as the de facto test that their culture was inherently inferior to that of Europe.
The absence of this context is a big part of why this book falls short. Readers unfamiliar with the history of the Arctic will not know the prevailing attitudes of Europeans at the time, let alone the ways in which interactions between explorers and Inuit had developed. For those who have read other works on the subject, this book will add an interesting chapter, but for readers lacking that background, the events described here will occur in a vacuum.
What experiences did he have during his time when they were just starting to add western technologies to their toolkits? Of all the things readers would like, this book would be the most important. Not here. Other problems stem from Müller-Wille’s insistence that Boas’ documents produced from this period, many in German and unknown to English-speaking readers, show the rise of Boas’s ideas. However, it is only the shortest summary of what was contained in them. The short, short pages outline the content of the articles and are so pointy that you will be left wondering why they matter at all.
The story falls short In the end, very little is gained from this book. Boas would go on to forge the path of anthropology, Margaret Mead and Zora Neale Hurston. It would defend racial equality and women’s rights. He would fight anti-Semitism and face the Nazis personally after being born in Germany. All this, Müller-Wille insists, arose from Boas’s time with the Inuit, when he came to consider the entire human family as one. It is unfortunate that the author rushes here and fails to deliver the story he promised. David A. James is a writer and critic based on Fairbanks. It is unfortunate that the author rushes here and fails to deliver the story he promised. David A. James is a writer and critic based on Fairbanks. It is unfortunate that the author rushes here and fails to deliver the story he promised. David A. James is a writer and critic based on Fairbanks.